Saturday, May 29, 2004; Page A26
THERE IS BOTH good news and bad news in the flurry of reports describing the decline of American preeminence in science. Falling numbers of scientific papers and prizes, as well as the relative drop in levels of funding and students, provide evidence of this decline. The good news is that it means other governments across the globe have begun investing heavily in basic scientific research. It also means that foreign companies have been investing in research and development, creating opportunities that make more people want scientific careers in their countries. More research anywhere creates more possibilities for innovation everywhere.
Yet the reports from the National Science Foundation and elsewhere indicate that the decline is not only relative. It is also absolute: American science is growing weaker, although not across the board. The boom in research and funding for the biological sciences -- including genetics and molecular biology -- has been matched by a decline in funding for, and interest in, physics and math. Because the decline has multiple sources, the solutions will have to be multiple. Poor teaching, and especially poor high school math teaching, bears part of the blame. Even in an era of heavy testing, the standards for high school math are very low. The American Diploma Project pointed out that few states even require the basic Algebra I-Geometry-Algebra II sequence needed just for many entry-level jobs, let alone for higher education. Low expectations, in turn, have led to a dearth of teachers. In March, The Post reported that because of the lack of trained Americans, urban school districts across the country must now rely on international recruitment and generous visa rules to find any high school math and science teachers at all.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, visa rules have grown tighter, making recruitment more difficult for schools as well as universities, where -- completing the vicious circle -- there is also a lack of students. Early this month the National Science Board reported that the number of Americans earning undergraduate science and engineering degrees is falling. As a result, more than half of engineering and computer science graduate students in the United States are now foreign-born. Yet even their presence on campus may begin to diminish: Since post-Sept. 11 visa restrictions kicked in, fewer top foreign graduate students have applied for visas, and those who do apply have greater difficulty getting in. By some accounts, graduate school applications from foreign students are down by as much as 30 percent. Fewer graduate students means less basic research, less innovation and ultimately fewer students.
Finally, government funding for the physical sciences has remained flat in recent years, even while funding for the biological sciences has risen. In part, this reflects the psychology of Congress and the public. Both are easily captivated by campaigns to cure diseases and less interested in pure mathematics: The nuclear physics that produced Chernobyl seems less appealing than the genetics that is producing new cures. In the long term, though, everything from improved environmental protection to successful computer software start-ups depend on this country maintaining its commitment to the physical sciences.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company